What it Takes to Prepare a 103-year-old Indian Motorcycle for the Cannonball Run

Cross country with a centenarian

1913 Model E Indian Motorcycle static side view
A significant overhaul was required to make this 1913 Model E road-worthy.Aaron Aahmu

Early 20th century America was a Luddite’s nightmare come true, and motorcycles were the purest product of these times.

The largest manufacturer was Indian motorcycle. In 1913 they were the largest transportation company in the world, selling 32,000 machines through 2,000 dealers, and controlling 42% of the U.S. motorcycle market.

That year, one of those units, painted Indian Red like all the others, rolled off the assembly line in Springfield, Massachusetts. It was a 1913 Indian Model E, and was built as a rugged workhorse for the daily grind of the 1900s. It featured few amenities, but did debut a huge advancement for the time, and for motorcycling history: a swingarm suspended by leaf springs.

maintenance on the 1913 Model E Indian
Every 500 miles you have to lube the lifters.Aaron Aahmu

It would be delivered to Davenport, Iowa, and from there lost to history. Then, in 1975 a father and son pulled it out of a barn and its retirement.

vintage Indian motorcycle on a work table
The Indian as Fred found it in 1975.Aaron Aahmu

Father and son Fred Wacker and Fred Wacker Jr. shared a litany of motorcycle experiences by the time they reached that barn, from racing to road trips, and this Indian was to be another shared project.

After being hauled back to Chicago, it was restored as a lightly functioning display piece. The following decades would see the bike trotted out to local events, but spend the majority of its time sitting. But with Fred Wacker’s death in 1998, Fred Wacker Jr. began contemplating the restoration of the Indian as one last tribute to the road trips they shared together.

Then Fred Wacker Jr. learned about the Cannonball Run, and quickly decided this would be the perfect event to restore the Indian for.

1913 Model E Indian Motorcycle engine details
This Model E was built for workhorse duties, with 61 cu. in. and a single speed.Aaron Aahmu

Held every two years, the Cannonball Run is a cross-country challenge for the world’s oldest motorcycles. Its namesake is Erwin “Cannonball” Baker. In 1913, he plodded through heat, exhaustion, and the expanse of this country on a ride from San Diego to New York. He made it in 11 days, 12 hours, and 10 minutes on a two speed Indian. Today, the challenge continues, but in the opposite direction.

After missing the event twice, Fred was in luck for the 2016 iteration. This year is the “Race of the Century” which focused specifically on 100-year-old and older bikes. Since the field of applicants was significantly smaller, Fred made it in.

modern and vintage Indian side by side
Mini family reunion.Aaron Aahmu

Making the race was the easy part.

Fred drafted a team of professionals, but above all else, friends, to work on the project. Frank Schiddel of Beacon Tool would be the engineer/fabricator. Joe Walano, the Guzzi Doctor, would be the chief mechanic. John Schnittker of Land Air Associates would rebuild the engine, and Fred would handle logistics, as well as pilot the bike.

They would also lean on the small but passionate knowledge base of owners and builders around the country to track down parts, modify the bike for ride ability, and talk to previous participants for advice.

1913 Model E Indian front wheel details
CL100 brake and modern wheels and tires take the handling from sketchy to merely scary.Aaron Aahmu

The bike was removed from its decorative state in Fred’s living room in January of this year and immediately stripped. The first thing to go was all the nickel plating. It may look great sitting still, but nickel holds in heat and overheats the bike nearly instantly.

Modifications were necessary to make the bike road worthy, but the goal was always to make these changes reversible. This led to some clever solutions. For example, the headlight is a modern LED unit and runs off a battery stored in the leather saddlebags.

1913 Model E Indian static side view
All modifications are reversible, all original parts safely stored away.Aaron Aahmu

The front brake is a drum from a Honda CL100, a huge improvement over not having a front brake at all, and is laced to a modern Excel aluminum rim. The rear features the stock band brake, but an identical Excel rim solution. Continental tires replace the stock units, since tires from the 1900s would fly off the rim if they hit a bump too hard.

The original tank was removed and an exact replica was fabricated. In addition, a large ancillary tank was added to the rear since the stock tank volume will only get you around 60 miles.

The original frame, engine case, and bottom end are utilized. However, VW Beetle pistons were used as they have a similar deck height to the stock units, and are more durable.

1913 Model E Indian navigation system
Navigation the analog way.Aaron Aahmu

The final enhancements were added for comfort and navigation. An aftermarket windshield was added, as was a roll chart holder.

Other than those external modifications, the bike rides and runs almost exactly as it did when it rolled off the line.

Beyond the physical modifications, getting the bike re-assembled was an exercise in patience as much as mechanical expertise. Everything used to assemble the bike is brittle and fragile from sitting so long. In addition, every one of these motorcycles was largely hand built, with loose manufacturing tolerances. Putting it back together took steady hands and careful filing to ensure correct fitment.

starting up the 1913 Model E Indian motorcycle
Starting a bike this old is an unique process.Aaron Aahmu

To see it run is part performance art, part terrifying, and a little funny. Fred uses the pedals to start, exactly like a moped. Once the bike fires, he jolts the bike off its kickstand and eases into out the clutch.

A small smoke cloud begins to billow, and the bike bumbles down the road gaining moderate velocity and curious, gleeful responses from witnesses.

Fred broke his own personal top speed for the project, breaking 45mph.

riding the 1913 Model E Indian motorcycle
On the road at a blistering 45 mph.Aaron Aahmu

Situated against the modern size and speed of traffic, the Indian looked like a toy boat placed in the Panama Canal.

We followed Fred all the way to Indian Motorcycle of Libertyville, who’s supporting Fred and his team in their Cannonball effort, along with the Lake Forest Historical Preservation Society. Here, we would stage a family reunion of sorts for Model E, and its great, great grandchild once removed, the 2016 Indian Scout.

checking out the 1913 Model E Indian motorcycle
Indian Motorcycles of Libertyville is helping with the project. Dealer owner Don O' Shea (center) checks out the restored ride.Aaron Aahmu

As the Model E dribbles oil onto a leather mat on the floor, Fred explains the various reasons to take part in this journey. One is to complete a goal he and his dad set to accomplish, and to share that experience with great friends.

guys standing behind the 1913 Model E Indian motorcycle
Fred Wacker (Center), Joe Walano (Left), and Frank Schiddel (Right) comprise the road crew for the Cannonball Run.Aaron Aahmu

The other is to keep this bike operational for future generations; The best history is living history. A 100-year-old bike in a museum is impressive, but it’s even more so to see that model out on the road like Indian intended back in 1913.

unloading the 1913 Model E Indian motorcycle
From barn find, to fully restored, and now across the country; you can follow Fred and team's progress here.Aaron Aahmu